By Howie Rumberg
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — The Home Run Derby news conference was about to begin and Chris Davis’ chair on the dais was empty. This season’s biggest slugger was missing.
When Baltimore’s first baseman finally strode into the room, only one question seemed appropriate: “You were busy hitting more home runs, Chris?” the emcee asked, only half joking.
It’s no joke what Crush Davis has done with that behemoth of a 35-inch, 33-ounce bat.
In less than two years, Davis has gone from nearly swinging-and-missing his way out of baseball to matching Reggie Jackson for most home runs by an American League player before the All-Star break with 37.
“What CD is doing right now is special,” fellow Orioles All-Star Adam Jones said Monday. “Special.”
And while the long balls have made Davis one of the most popular players in the game right now, the season he’s having is even better than his tape-measure drives.
The leading vote-getter in All-Star balloting is hitting .315. He joins Detroit’s Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera as the first two players EVER to hit at least 30 homers and drive in 90 runs before the break.
“I mean, both of those guys had incredible first halves,” Washington outfielder Bryce Harper said. “I mean, first players to ever have 30-90. I mean, that’s stupid. That’s just like, video game, and let’s just go out and have some fun and smile and laugh when we strike out.”
There was a time when Davis wasn’t laughing, when “Crush” Davis, a play on Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis, who sets the minor league record for home runs in “Bull Durham,” was worried that was all he would be: a bush league bopper.
Davis displayed great power from the start in pro ball, hitting 36 homers in his second season in the minors. He hit 118 home runs in 1,807 minor league at-bats overall.
When he was called up by the Rangers in 2008, he homered in his first start. The Texas boy earned his nickname playing for a team in his home state.
But he also struck out — a lot.
In 2009, he fanned 150 times in 391 at-bats and his on-base percentage fell below .300. A year later, his batting average dipped to .192 and he only homered once in 120 at-bats.
He sure did think about becoming a real-life Crash Davis while riding the Triple-A express in his last three years with the Rangers.
But near the trade deadline in 2011, he was acquired by the Orioles, along with pitcher Tommy Hunter, for reliever Koji Uehara and cash.
That’s when things started to change.
Davis switched to the bigger bat in 2012, got consistent playing time from the Orioles and produced. He hit 33 homers and drove in 85 runs last season. By the way, he also earned a win pitching two innings in a 17-inning game at Boston.
Working with Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley, Davis started using more of the field and staying back in his stance.
And while he still struck out plenty, Davis made more contact and swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone.
He hit seven homers in the final seven games of 2012, helping Baltimore to their first postseason since 1997.
That was only the start.
This year his swings have turned heads, especially in his own dugout.
“Every time he steps into the batter’s box I think everyone on our team is watching him seeing if he can do something special again,” All-Star teammate J.J. Hardy said, “and he hasn’t disappointed at all.”
Said Manny Machado: “Now it’s just every day we’re expecting it.”
Davis set a record with 16 RBIs in the first four games of the season and has been locked in since. He has 27 doubles, 93 RBIs, a .392 on-base percentage and a .717 slugging average in 95 games.
“He handles the ball in on him. He handles the ball away from him. He’s very aggressive,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “He really has a good grasp of the strike zone and when you have a good grasp of the strike zone and you’re a very aggressive hitter, there’s not hardly any way to pitch to him.”
The sustained success has led to more difficult questions for Davis, and he’s confronted them head on. When asked on Twitter if he used steroids, he responded with a no. He considers the single-season home run record to be Roger Maris’ 61.
“I think any time you’re being asked about something, you want to be open and honest about it. I’ve got nothing to hide,” said Davis, who was eliminated in the second round of the derby. “I want people to know that. I want people to feel like they can get behind me.”
Relaxed and enjoying his first trip to the All-Star game, Davis knows other young players trying to make it in the big leagues will look to his story.
“I think it’ll be an inspiration for anybody who’s tried, succeeded and failed and then had to come back and learn how to succeed again,” he said. “There’s a lot of stories in baseball where guys came up and were highly touted and didn’t pan out. It’s unfortunate but I didn’t want to be one of those guys.”